Our Children

A memorial to a student killed in Chicago. Image from This American Life from their radio show on gun violence at Harper High School in Chicago.

“I’d rather have ten kids be killed in Chicago than have my house broken into…. Do you know how scary it is to have your house broken into when you are in it?”

I think my jaw literally dropped when a Harvard graduate student (at a non-HKS school) said that to me this weekend. He might have been saying that to get a reaction from me (it worked) but he said it, which was unfathomable to me whatever  his reason was.

The underlying argument doesn’t work from either side. It’s not clear that stricter gun laws alone will save Chicago’s kids, since most of the shooters don’t have legal guns anyway. The correlation between gun laws and number of guns also isn’t entirely clear; it (unsurprisingly) depends on the substance of the gun laws.The solution needs to be more comprehensive, for sure. And, it’s also not clear to me that guns prevent home invasions. I’ve had a really hard time finding data that showed that gun ownership leads to fewer gun invasions.

But the inflammatory statement isn’t really about gun control. It’s about empathy. It’s about the speaker not knowing anyone who was killed with a gun, but he does know someone whose home was broken into. That’s not surprising since the burglary rate is far higher than murder rate, but he also probably doesn’t know any public school teenagers living in Chicago, let alone living in the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

I was privileged to be able to take a class with Robert Putnam last semester. He spoke throughout the semester about the loss of a sense of “our children,” the sense that we are all responsible for each other, outside of our own families. It’s tricky to build the bridging social capital needed to make sure that people with immense privilege debating laws in Cambridge Massachusetts (who, regardless of background have immense privilege by virtue of being Harvard students, and who, obviously, includes me as well) know teenagers whose lives are so full of gun violence that they walk straight down the middle of the street so that they have a few more seconds to run if shooting starts. 

My friend, Tanveer Ali, just wrote an excellent article arguing for more coverage of the victims of shootings.  There are arguments to be made for not covering every murder in the newspaper. The arguments are sad, and generally stem from the idea that the murders are   common (506 in Chicago in 2012) but also have a more positive angle, that writing about every murder in the newspaper makes the city seem like one defined by murder.

But Tanveer’s argument is compelling: “by striving to treat all victims as human, journalists and their audiences may well seek out further information on social, economic, and other factors that play directly into the numbers of violence. And those results would be a good first step in changing the homicide numbers.”

I think the empathy argument, the one I’ve been mulling over all weekend, is a trickier one to pin down: I’d like the media to tell stories that make people inside the beltways and the ivory tower to feel a little bit more that all victims  of violence are valuable and more similar to us than dissimilar.  I don’t know how to get the people who are most likely to talk about only the statistics that support their point of view and only about their own experiences to read things that challenge them, to listen to radio that tells stories about lives completely unlike their own.  But that doesn’t mean that media outlets should stop trying. This American Life did an incredible job going deep into the effects of gun violence on the families, staff, and students of Harper High School in Chicago. At the very end of the two-part radio show, Ira Glass went back to the statistics, to make sure that listeners knew that the problems and struggles and tragedies of Harper High were not unique to Harper High or to Chicago. But it was the stories of the individuals that made the radio show.

How we in the news media expand empathy is something that has no easy answer, and I am sure there are a lot of people who say it’s not our job. But a lot of journalists are working on it. We’re a minuscule part of the solution (and I haven’t even broached the topic of race). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our absolute hardest to expand the definition of “our children.”

P.S. On the issue of the gun control debate there is surely a problem of neither side knowing the other, a problem that The New  Republic appears to have tried to tackle recently by running an essay about a gun owner, but the question of empathy for the victims of violence (which can be expanded to non-gun violence as well) seems to me to be a bigger one, because people can stand up and demand action out of a sense that something must be done, even if they disagree on how it should be done.

3 thoughts on “Our Children

  1. Pingback: Privilege and Outrage: Why I Care About Ferguson | Leora Falk

  2. Leora,
    You write about human failings with the lofty tone of someone who either has a secret fix or reparation, which you continue to tease the reader with as you give the impression that you harbor the answers. Please, spell it out in simple terms so that we can understand and act to end human conflict.
    Someone drops your jaw with an “unfathonable” assertion, then you blithely proceed to fathom it for the reader. You analyize the “underlying argument” of his assertion while firing at the reader a rapid burst of “it’s not clears” from your never-empty fully-automatic weapon. You then say that “The solution needs to be more conprehensive, for sure”, followed by another “it’s not clear” because you can’t locate the data.
    Then you say that his “unfathonable” statement is “inflammatory” and that it “really” isn’t about gun control; it’s that he lacks empathy. You see into the hearts of minds of others with clarity and ease. “It’s not clear”, is said by you, but it never applies.
    You’re not “surprised” to know, as you claim to know, that your interlocutor knows no one killed by a gun, but only knows a victim of a burglary. You know or assume to know that he “probably” (and “let alone”) knows no one living in the countless gun-violent urban neighborhoods all across the United States.
    Again, you cite your guilty white privilage and the “immense privilage” of those “like me” who DO “know teenagers whose lives are so full of gun violence…”, unlike the Harvard graduate student who you so certainly know, knows no such teenagers. ?
    Your stream-of-unconsciousness writing is a marvel of “higher” education. Thank God for Harvard.
    You finally, seemingly, get around to saying something sensable. You cite your friend’s “excellent article arguing for more coverage of the victims of shootings”, which I assume would cover equally the shooters. You then trip all over him and yourself escaping back into your briar patch. “Sad arguments” for not covering “common” murders in cities too defined by murder is a “more postive angle”. You’re lost in a modern liberal muddle of confusion.
    “But Tanveer’s argument is compelling” ? Which is it? “Treat all victims as humans”? Or, cut our murder capitals some “positive” slack?
    Journalists don’t have “audiences”. You reveal what is true about you. This is nothing but performance art to you. You offer fiction, fantasy, illusion and deception. You juggle a bowling ball and a ping pong ball with ease. You’re playing at “make believe”.
    You cry for increased empathy within the beltways and ivory towers; for them to “feel a little bit more” the value of all victims of violence, because they are so much more similar to us than not. As usual, you take it to heart; it all seems to begin and end with an unavoidable personal declaration of your superior measure of empathy, and your oversized angst burdon. “I think…I’ve been mulling…I’d like…I don’t know how…”, “How we in the news media expand empathy…” ?
    You sum your self up very well: “P.S….people can stand up and demand action…even if they disagree how it should be done.” Let’s demand that the clueless act to demand action from the clueless.
    That, like the meaning of most of what you write, completely escapes you.
    I have coined my own short but concise definition of traditionalist conservatism, which by necessity contains it’s opposite; a definition of modern liberalism that you embody and exemplify: “Life is participation in a permanent and immutable natural order of being that can not be altered or defied. Modern liberalism attempts to deny and to defy that order, while traditionalist conservatism accepts it and embraces it’s necessary constraints.”

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